Mortal and Venial Lists
Thursday, April 30, 2009 -- -- Week of 3 Easter, Year One
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 960)
Psalms 37:1-18 (morning) 37:19-42 (evening)
1 John 5:13-20(21)
There is a little passage in 1 John that has helped produce a cottage industry of sin. "If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one -- to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that is not mortal."
Largely out of this reference, Roman Catholic moral theology created a teaching tradition of lists and commentary about mortal sins and venial sins. When that commentary is combined with a side reference from the book of Hebrews that mentions as "unforgivable" the sin against the Holy Spirit (which Hebrews does not define or elaborate), there can be great and fearful energy. Occasionally I have visited with people who are pathologically haunted by the fear that they have committed a mortal and unforgivable sin. They live with profound a vivid fears of eternal punishment and separation from those they love. Their level of anxiety and fear is sometimes pathological. I always invoke the aid of professional therapy, but even with therapy and supportive spiritual counsel, it can be extraordinarily difficult for people who have dwelt on these thoughts of sin to become grounded and centered.
There are a couple of principles that can help. First, forgiveness is always available. The constant teaching and experience of the Church is that God's forgiveness is ubiquitous and readily present. Nevertheless, I've met people whose level of guilt and doubt was so profound that they were unable to accept the free gift of grace through forgiveness. Sometimes the hook is from Hebrews: "What if my sin is really unforgivable?" I've known people who could not be convinced otherwise.
Second, Catholic moral theology stresses that mortal sin is not something we might do accidentally or without awareness. In that teaching, mortal sin is a grave matter, chosen intentionally, with full knowledge of its gravity. The sound advice about such circumstances is to repent, confess and be forgiven. If you can make amends of some sort, do so. (Often we can't.) Then, let it go.
But moral theologians need something to write about, and so there exist mountainous collections of lists of sins with various commentary about their seriousness and one's likelihood of damnation. For some people of sensitive or scrupulous temperament, these lists and commentaries can create pathology. Sometimes the lists themselves seem venial and almost silly. They can do great damage. One commentary based on some of the moral theology of Aquinas list four particularly grave sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, and then lumps together homosexual relations along with murder, abusing the poor, and defrauding a worker of wages. From such traditions we've inherited homophobia that sometimes degenerates into violence and pograms. (It's ironic that there is not quite the same passion on behalf living wages among some of the most righteous sin police.) And how many poor Catholic children have been scared and haunted by the traditional teaching that missing Sunday mass is a grave sin that puts your soul in mortal danger?
There are some among us who need our conscience awakened, but I find that it is far more common that people are very hard on themselves. Spiritual Director - Psychiatrist Gerald May believes that the incredible harshness we have toward ourselves is at the core of so many of our troubles. Shame and fear are weapons for child-control and can plant abusive seeds within us as adults. He says, "The more cruel we are to ourselves, the more likely we are to be mean to others." Self-persecution is not healthy. He suggests that if we want a more loving life, we need to be a whole lot gentler towards ourselves.
I think we would be a healthier church and culture if we spent more time with the second section of 1 John 4 and less time with the second section of 1 John 5. Part of loving one another includes loving ourselves, for God's sake. And forgiving ourselves, as God does.
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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
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Lowell Grisham, Rector